The young woman outside the G Street entrance of Woodward & Lothrop is on her hands and knees polishing the steps. She wears the crisp white-and-green uniform of a department store domestic. A group of broad men in tight suits survey the scene and chatter occasionally into walkie-talkies.
In each purple display window stands a huge picture of Elizabeth Taylor. The light shimmers in her blue eyes, on her diamond necklace, her diamond earrings, her diamond ring and the top of the bottle of her perfume. She is due at the store at 2 p.m. to plug this perfume. It is called Elizabeth Taylor's Passion.
Passion "embraces the essence of the exotic, the romantic and the elegant." At least that's what the press handout says. And since this essence-embracing is a notoriously tricky business, Parfums International has staked Taylor to a $10 million promotional campaign.
Newspaper ads say: "Experience Elizabeth Taylor's Passion." Now it may seem that after her seven marriages enough people have experienced Elizabeth Taylor's Passion, but this is not the case.
At 12:50 a crowd has already begun to grow in front of the G Street entrance. The young woman is now polishing the railings.
"They say she doesn't sign anything," says a guy in a red-and-blue striped shirt. "Too bad I don't have my Katharine Hepburn autographed picture with me. I could show it to her and say, 'She's greater than you'll ever be.' "
A young man with a new haircut and an italicized voice materializes behind him. It is barely 1 p.m. "She's late," he says.
"Oh no," someone tells him. "She isn't due until 2."
"They say she's late," says the haircut. "Traditionally she's late. The lady is very unpredictable."
"And she's adamant about not signing autographs," says Stripes.
Inside on the main floor, there are already several hundred people standing at the foot of a short flight of stairs. A microphone is perched on the landing. "I want to see her eyes," a woman tells her friend. "Her eyes are supposed to be violet."
"I want to see what she looks like when she wakes up in the morning," her friend says.
Most of the seats in the shoe department are already filled by gray-haired women with packages in their laps and something other than footwear on their minds. They've been lining up since 10 a.m.
The crowd has made life difficult for store employes, particularly those who work the perfume counters. "When you get a lot of people in here, even if it is a high-caliber crowd they still take all the samples," one says. "All the bottles."
By 1:15 the main floor is jammed with women sniffing their wrists.
"You know, I heard that somebody asked her what she wants and she said she would like a jet plane to take around to talk about this perfume," says a woman leaning against the counter of a competing perfume.
"She doesn't need anything," says her friend.
"She said she needed a jet and Malcolm Forbes will probably buy that for her. He is one of the wealthiest men in the world."
The Malcolm Forbes issue is the second most popular topic on the floor. The weight issue is No. 1.
"She's lost a lot of weight," says a distinguished white-haired woman who holds her glasses in her hands.
"Oh yeah," says a man in a gray flannel suit.
"She probably cut Joan Rivers' repertoire of jokes in half by doing that."
"There you go."
The wall to their right is inhabited by a huge gold-framed promotional photo. In lavender pots on either side stand large arrangements of dried flowers of purple and gold. Beneath the display, a man who works for the store is talking to a man who works for the perfume company.
"I think she'll like it," says the man from the store. He wears a purple-and-black striped sports coat and an elegant mustache.
"What's not to like," says the Parfums man. He has slick black hair. "It's terrific."
"Maybe we can send her a slide of it."
The man from Woodies walks through the store, past a trio of women who are playing gin on the counter top where handbags are usually sold.
It is 1:45 when Taylor's assistant Chen Sam appears. She is wearing a satin jacket, purple of course, with lavender trim and gold lettering. "Elizabeth Taylor's Passion," it says, " '87 Fall Tour."
The Passion people wear purple buttons and write with purple pens. The wires that run to the microphones are also purple. Backstage, on ice, is a pitcher of cranberry juice for the star. Cranberry juice is the most purple beverage, unless you go in for Welchade.
The shrieking begins out on the street. It is 2:15 when Taylor appears at the top of the stairs. She wears a deep purple blouse beneath a lavender suit. Gold chains, punctuated by the occasional shimmering stone, hang to her waist. On her left hand she wears a diamond the size of the Astrodome. Lipstick highlights her teeth.
What ensues is a press conference of a sort. Woodies President Tom Roach leads off by asking, "Do you really have a passion for motorcycling?"
"I love motorcycles," says Taylor, who has a brand-new Harley-Davidson Low-Rider. Guess what color?
"Elizabeth," says someone in the audience, "what made you decide to get into the Passion business?"
"The Passion business? I've been in that a long time. You mean the perfume business?"
"Did you pick purple as the color for the perfume because that is the color of your eyes?"
No, she says, if she were going to do that she would have picked red.
Someone wants to know if she is going to marry Malcolm Forbes.
"No," she says. "We're biking companions."
A television reporter asks if Michael Jackson really keeps a shrine dedicated to her.
"Pull yourself together," she says.
Under intensive scrutiny Taylor reveals that she has six grandchildren, that she is 55, that she is writing a diet book.
She spent a year and a half working on the perfume, sniffing numbered bottles and telling the chemists which ones she liked and which ones she didn't. "I told them I wanted something with a floral and oriental odor," she says.
Applause greets the announcement that some of her earnings from the perfume will go to AIDS research. Taylor is the chairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. More applause greets the news that the perfume was not tested on animals.
"I just want you to know that you are an inspiration to my mother and a lot of women out here," a young man tells her.
"Do you do your own makeup?" a woman asks. "You do it so beautifully. It's not too much."
"Ms. Elizabeth, I am so proud to tell you that my name is Elizabeth too."
And then: "Does your dusting powder really have crushed pearls in it?"
"No," Taylor says. "If it did, I'd be wearing it."
After the question period, Taylor is whisked to the sixth floor for tea with 100 close friends, each of whom has paid $200 for a one-ounce Signature bottle of the perfume "inscribed with a gold message."
One of the takers was Bill Meyer of Centreville, Va. "First time I ever bought my old lady a bottle of perfume in 15 years," he says. "I make it a point to go around this department; the smell is so strong. But what the hell, $200. It's worth it."
Down on the main floor, after the free samples were gone, the crowd spilled out the doors and into the cabs and the Metro and the buses. Anyone wondering what that floral-oriental aroma was wafting through the K4 bound for Fort Totten yesterday, that was Passion.